How Tsarnaev will live, if he’s sentenced to life

ADX Florence, the country’s only federal ‘supermax’ prison
ADX Florence, the country’s only federal ‘supermax’ prison –Bureau of Prisons website

If Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is spared the death penalty, he will spend the rest of his life in prison—almost definitely the very same prison that is home to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, shoe bomber Richard Reid, and 9/11 co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui.

Attorney Chris Tritico, who represented Timothy McVeigh, says where Tsarnaev would serve his sentence would be “entirely up to the Bureau of Prisons.’’

“But I have never seen a case of domestic terrorism where the person didn’t end up in supermax. And there’s only one federal supermax facility,’’ Tritico told

That facility – ADX – is located in Florence, Colorado.


The same jury that on Wednesday found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on 30 counts related to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings will soon decide whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison.

If it’s life, it will be very different than the life he knew before the bombings.

Prison vs. College

ADX is a far cry from Pine Dale Hall, the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth dormitory where Tsarnaev was living on April 15, 2013, the day of the marathon.

The UMass Dartmouth housing experience is designed with the student’s health and well-being in mind.

According to the school’s website:

“Roll out of bed to get to class. Grab a snack on the run. Balance studies with fitness and fun. Services that make your life easier.’’

Nothing about ADX is designed to make life easier. Roll out of bed, and you’re likely to roll into the toilet.

Mahmud Abouhalima, who became an ADX inmate after being convicted for participating in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing,


“Sitting in a small box in a walking distance of eight feet, this little hole becomes my world, my dining room, reading and writing area, sleeping, walking, urinating, and defecating. I am virtually living in a bathroom, and this concept has never left my mind in ten years.’’

Living Quarters

Tsarnaev’s Pine Dale Hall dorm room came equipped with window treatments, a closet, desk, chair, dresser, bed, and an extra-long mattress, according to the UMass Dartmouth Housing and Residential Education Handbook.

Cells at ADX range are generally 87 square feet in size, and furnishings are limited to nothing more than “a fixed bunk, desk and a stool, as well as a shower and a toilet.’’



According to the housing handbook, students enjoy “a number of cable TV channels, including Bravo, MTV, the Cartoon Network and three HBO channels.

A 2006 report in The Telegraph describes the limited television offerings afforded to ADX inmate Richard Reid:

“On his desk, which is built into the wall so that it cannot be moved, is a 12in television set with a see-through back so officers can check for missing parts or anything hidden inside.The television delivers a diet of “educational’’ programmes such as anger management and literacy, a basic package of entertainment channels, and an in-house quiz. “It’s a sort of Trivial Pursuit, with five or six different questions and the chance to win a candy bar if he gets them right,’’ said one insider.’’

Significant restrictions are often placed by prison authorities on reading material. Tsarnaev certainly won’t have access to Inspire Magazine. In 2009, ADX even reportedly banned two books by President Obama.


In addition to email accounts, Pine Dale residents are also provided with phone jacks, and can bring and use their own phones as – and when – they wish. Packages can be received through the university’s mailbox system.

ADX inmate Mahmud Abouhalima described the extent to which communications by inmates are limited.

“Over the last six years, three of my uncles, my grandfather, my aunt, and my uncle’s daughter have all passed away. I submitted request after request just to send condolence letters to my family mourning these deaths. I also requested to speak with my aunt before she died of cancer. They denied all of these requests…’’

One former ADX inmate told 60 Minutes: “Your connections to the outside. Your family. Through phone calls, visits, all those are pretty much stopped at the ADX.’’


UMass Dartmouth students have the choice of eating at more than a dozen different dining halls, with offerings like “hand cut French fries,’’ cappuccino and quinoa. Starbucks and Wendy’s both have on-campus locations.

Abouhalima described the dining experience: “I am fed like a zoo animal through a slot in the door.’’

Meals are eaten in the cell, and are “served by two guards, who must wait for the outer double doors to lock behind them before they enter the inner set of barred gates or pass items through the hatch.’’

Tsarnaev will have few options of what to eat (though non-pork items are offered to Muslim inmates). He will also not have the option of not eating.


According to a 2011 report by 60 Minutes, inmates who go on hunger strikes are force-fed.

“There have been frequent hunger strikes among the Islamic terrorist inmates inside Supermax and to keep the inmates alive there are often force feedings. That’s when an inmate is restrained and liquid nourishment is poured down a tube in his nose.’’


At Pine Dale Hall, students come and go as they please, and doors lock from the inside.

ADX takes measures so extreme that “other than when being placed in restraints and escorted by guards, prisoners may spend years without touching another human being,’’ according to anAmnesty International report.

According to Amnesty’s report, general population prisoners are permitted to write letters and “make two 15-minute non-legal phone calls a month.’’ All visits to ADX prisoners—including family members and attorneys—“take place in a non-contact setting, behind a thick plexiglass screen,’’ the report states.

Restrictions placed on Tsarnaev could mirror those placed on shoebomber Richard Reid, which were detailed in the Telegraph’s 2006 report:

“For 23 hours a day, Reid is locked down, confined to his cell. From computerised control booths, staff monitor the ranges using remote-controlled video cameras and motion sensors. Every half hour, day and night, he is checked through the windows in his cell doors and must stand by his bed at designated times, five times a day as the staff take a head-count.’’

Mental Health Services

UMass-Dartmouth students have access to a bevy of mental health services, including individual therapy designed to help students handle everything from “concentration problems’’ to “lack of motivation’’ and anxiety.

A former ADX warden told The New York Times that the prison is “not designed for humanity.’’

A BBC report concurred:

“Current and former inmates, lawyers and others familiar with the prison describe it as an infernal environment in which even the design of the cells and the architecture of the prison conspire to render the inmates docile and drive them mad.’’

And ADX remains at the center of what has been described as “the largest lawsuit ever filed against the United States Bureau of Prisons.’’

There are stories of inmates going mad at ADX. Jack Powers was transferred there after serving time elsewhere for bank robbery. According to the Times, Powers “cut off both earlobes, chewed off a finger, sliced through his Achilles’ tendon, pushed staples into his face and forehead’’ and resorted to “slicing open his scrotum and removing a testicle.’’

And there’s David Shelby, the ADX inmate who, after claiming he heard the voice of God, “amputated his pinky, cut it into pieces, and swallowed it with ramen noodle soup.’’

Jaison Leggett is an ADX prisoner who wears a prosthetic leg. When Leggett “swallowed some of its parts,’’ lawyers allege that prison officials “refused to provide a replacement,’’ instead forcing Leggett to “crawl around his cell and prison corridors.’’


In the days following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Tsarnaev was caught on video visiting the UMass-Dartmouth athletic facility, where students can enjoy Zumba, pilates, yoga, and other fitness activities.

Tsarnaev’s workouts at ADX would be different.

Take Richard Reid’s experience, as described by The Telegraph:

“His one hour of ‘freedom’ may be spent padding around an indoor recreation hall alone, apart from his escorts, or sometimes in a yard with others, sectioned off from one another in ‘dog kennel’ style compounds.’’

Live or die, there’s no good option for Tsarnaev.

The Alcatraz of the Rockies

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